The conventional wisdom is hardening in a hurry: The real winner of the months-long Democratic nominating contest isn’t Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton—it’s John McCain.
The Wall Street Journal writes that “a fear that the Obama-Clinton contest has grown toxic and threatens the Democratic Party’s chances against Republican John McCain in the fall” has taken hold within the party, while CNN ominously notes that McCain has now begun re-introducing himself to general election voters while “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are still in a delegate-by-delegate battle to become their party’s nominee.”
There is certainly some logic to this talk. In McCain, the G.O.P. has, surprisingly, opted to field its strongest possible fall candidate, and every day that passes now with the Democratic race unresolved is another day in which McCain dodges the kind of concerted attacks that could undermine his numbers. There is also the embittering effect of the Democratic fight, with Clinton voters threatening to jump ship in the fall if Obama is the nominee, and vice versa. No wonder McCain has built a small lead over Obama and Clinton in some polls—a lead that may grow in the coming weeks.
But all of the panic misses a key point: This always happens. Every four years around this time, one party looks like it is getting everything right, and the other party looks like it’s mucking everything up. But it’s the spring screw-ups who, as often as not, end up winning in the fall.
Remember President Dukakis? And President Kerry? And George H.W. Bush’s second term? In all three of those elections—1988, 2004, and 1992—the political conventional wisdom that accompanied the start of the baseball season was all but forgotten by the time the World Series rolled around.
Take ’88, when Dukakis clinched the Democratic nomination in early April, around the same time George H.W. Bush drove his last remaining foe, Marion “Pat” Robertson, out of the Republican race. Week after week for the rest of the spring, The Duke waged a disciplined, on-message campaign, building a double-digit lead over Bush, who seemed to flail haphazardly from one disconnected theme to the next.
By June, the Washington Post was declaring that Dukakis had maneuvered himself into “the strongest position any Democrat has enjoyed at this point in more than 20 years.”
The Post added: “Dukakis’ relatively early elimination of all of his (Democratic) rivals except Jesse L. Jackson…has given his campaign the luxury of time to plan for the convention and the fall campaign, and the look of a winner as it prepares to face Bush.”
Woops. By November, the masses saw Dukakis as a bloodless technocrat who passed his idle time freeing rapists from prison, burning American flags and tossing the ashes in Boston Harbor. He lost 40 states.
Not that anyone learned much from this experience. Four years later, Bill Clinton sewed up the Democratic nomination, only to find himself running a distant third in general election polls, behind both Bush and Ross Perot. Perot effectively stole Clinton’s change message, leaving Clinton with just the die-hard Democratic base. Either Perot would pull off the shocker of the century and win the fall, the conventional wisdom of the spring of ’92 held, or he’d deny Clinton traction and pave the way for a second Bush term.
“For Clinton,” the Los Angeles Times sympathetically noted in June ’92, “the process of winning the party’s nomination may have made vastly more difficult the ultimate goal of winning the White House.”
Eh, not really. Clinton rebounded over the summer, helping to scare an increasingly erratic Perot (temporarily) out of the race, and by the end of the Democratic convention in July—voila—he’d built a 32-point lead over Bush. His final six-point margin was deceptively close; the outcome wasn’t really in doubt in the fall.
Time and again, we’ve seen this pattern play out. Think back to around this time in 2004, when all of the Smart People (present company included) told anyone who’d listen that Kerry would win in the fall. Why? Because George W. Bush’s job approval and “re-elect” numbers were under 50 percent. And incumbents with those numbers simply don’t win over undecided voters.
But Bush did, or at least he held on to enough of them. He pioneered a new winning model that, in retrospect, seemed incredibly basic: mobilizing the conservative base in record numbers, more than off-setting any Kerry advantage among swing voters.
Even in 1996, one of the most uneventful and anticlimactic campaigns of the modern era, springtime conventional wisdom got it wrong. Around this time back then, everyone just knew that the polls showing Bill Clinton crushing Bob Dole would inevitably tighten in the fall. But they didn’t.
So over the coming weeks, as John McCain makes all sorts of impressive gains with the electorate while Clinton and Obama bicker, just remember this: For most average voters, what happens in April stays in April.